+++UPDATE: German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer and NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn docked with the International Space Station ISS on 12 November at 00:32 CET.+++
ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer lifted off from Kennedy Space Center (Florida, USA) to the International Space Station (ISS) on 11 November 2021 as a member of Crew-3. He is the first German and second European astronaut to fly to the ISS on board a Dragon spacecraft that is part of the NASA Commercial Crew Program. It will also be his first flight into space. He will be travelling with NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas H. Marshburn and Kayla Barron. Maurer will take over for French ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who has been on the ISS since 23 April 2021. Maurer will, in turn, be followed by Italian ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (her flight is currently planned for April 2022). For the first time, three ESA astronauts will be on board the ISS in an unbroken sequence over a one-and-a-half-year period. While there, they will work alongside US, Russian and Japanese colleagues.
ESA astronauts choose their own mission names and logos. Matthias Maurer’s mission is called 'Cosmic Kiss'. The mission's name is a declaration of love for space, for the Space Station as a link between humanity and the cosmos and for what people there do and will do in the future. At the same time, it stands for the value of exploring space in partnership, and for the respectful and sustainable treatment of Earth. The ISS therefore appears at the centre of the mission logo, connected to Earth and the Moon via a human heartbeat. The heartbeat is intended to symbolise the passion and curiosity that drives people to explore space, as well as the life science experiments that the Space Station makes possible. For the logo, Matthias Maurer was inspired by the Nebra Sky Disc (the oldest known representation of the night sky) and the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft that carry a distillation of knowledge about humankind out beyond the Solar System. They represent humanity's fascination with space and its desire to learn more about the origin of life and the Universe as well as their place in it. The emblem also includes various celestial bodies such as Earth, the Moon, the group of seven stars that make up the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) asterism and Mars.
Earth, the Space Station, the Moon and beyond …
Matthias Maurer is one of seven currently active ESA astronauts. He has been a member of the ESA astronaut corps since July 2015. In September 2018, he completed his 18-month basic training and in December 2020 he was officially nominated for his first mission to the ISS. To prepare for the mission, he completed training sessions at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, the SpaceX Crew Dragon facility in California, as well as in Russia, Japan and Canada.
The Moon and Mars have a special meaning for Maurer. Before joining the astronaut corps, he worked as a project manager on the development of ESA's future Moon simulation facility, Luna, a joint project between ESA and DLR in Cologne. He also participated in several geological field exercises related to future lunar exploration. In 2016, he was part of the crew of NASA's NEEMO 21 analogue mission, for which he spent a total of 16 days underwater testing exploration strategies and tools for future missions to Mars.
Six months, over 100 experiments
Matthias Maurer's ISS mission will last six months. During this time, Maurer, originally from the Saarland region of Germany and a doctor of materials science, will supervise and carry out 36 German and more than 100 international experiments. Most of the German experiments will be conducted in the European Columbus research laboratory on the ISS. These will range from fundamental research to application-oriented science in fields such as life sciences, materials science, physics, biology, medicine and Earth observation.
Fundamental physics questions will be investigated using ultracold atoms and the crystallisation of different concrete mixes. Other experiments will test applications of non-invasive medical diagnostics and new antimicrobial surfaces that can be used in space and on Earth – in hospitals, for example. Successful technology experiments, such as CIMON-2, which is equipped with artificial intelligence, will assist Maurer during his mission and demonstrate new opportunities for human-machine interaction. The mission plan also includes numerous biology and human physiology experiments, especially relating to the effects of long-term weightlessness, increased radiation exposure and prolonged isolation on human physiology and metabolism.
More information on the mission's experiments can be found here.
Conduct research with Matthias Maurer – activities for the next generation of scientists
Promoting the natural sciences, technology and enthusiasm for space among young people is one of DLR's core objectives and is reflected in the Cosmic Kiss mission. One of the schools initiatives is the 'Hand in Hand around the World' campaign. In the run-up to the mission, over 1000 primary school children painted 'class selfies' that will accompany Matthias Maurer to the ISS, some of which were combined to form a 10-metre-long strip of pictures and some of which were stored digitally on a USB drive. In addition, the AI-supported astronaut assistant CIMON-2 will answer questions from school classes and take young viewers on a virtual tour of the ISS with Maurer. ESA's 'Earth Guardian – Space for Change' school competition calls for creative ideas for protecting the climate. Schoolchildren aged 12 to 14 will use Earth observation data to devise sustainable projects to protect the environment.
You can find more information about the activities here.
A unique laboratory with extraterrestrial capabilities
The microgravity conditions on the ISS make this a unique setting unlike any laboratory on Earth. These conditions make it possible to conduct research to better understand physical and biological processes on Earth and in space, as individual phenomena can be better observed and isolated without the impacts of hydrostatic pressure, buoyancy, sedimentation and natural convection – processes that are driven by differences in density. New materials are developed and new technologies can be tested here.
The ISS is also an ideal platform for the development and testing of innovative medical diagnostics and treatments. It offers the unique opportunity to observe reversible processes in time lapse and to translate those findings to treatments on Earth – from the cell on a molecular biological level to the human being as a system. For instance, osteoporosis (loss of bone density) is easy to examine on the ISS. The state of continuous weightlessness leads to the deterioration of astronauts' bones in a process comparable to bone loss in someone suffering from osteoporosis. In the case of the astronauts, this effect is reversed upon their return to Earth. During their time on board the ISS, the astronauts perform ultrasound examinations or take blood and urine samples. This makes it easy to observe the bone loss as it takes place. Medicines that help to combat osteoporosis have already been developed on the basis of such research findings.
The Bartolomeo platform has been attached to the outside of the Columbus module since April 2020. It is Europe's first commercial external platform on the ISS and offers companies and research institutions the unique opportunity to test technologies in space. Placing experiments and developments on Bartolomeo is significantly more cost-effective than sending them into space on satellites, as they do not need their own rocket launch, but are brought to the ISS on routine supply flights. In addition, the experiments can be exchanged or samples returned to Earth – something that is not possible with satellite missions. This makes the platform particularly appealing to small and medium-sized companies. The platform was built by Airbus in Bremen and is operated in tandem with the Columbus Control Centre at DLR’s site in Oberpfaffenhofen.
Orbiting Earth at 'just' 400 kilometres, the ISS also offers a number of possibilities for Earth observation, making it possible to observe weather phenomena such as lightning and electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere. The astronauts can take images from the windows or the Cupola.
The long journey to the ISS
Before an experiment can be carried out on the ISS it must undergo a long journey – not only in terms of its flight from Earth to the space station, but also its development from an initial idea through to selection for the mission and implementation by astronauts in space. There are many stages; in some cases, experiments are even tested under brief microgravity conditions during DLR's parabolic flight campaigns. Calls for experiments take place regularly, giving researchers many opportunities to apply. The submitted projects are then selected according to the most promising scientific return, and peer reviews take place. In principle, the experiments have to be scientifically relevant, technically feasible and safe – experiments that are flammable or work with high-voltages or toxic substances are excluded. Once they have been tested and qualified for a flight, they can become part of a mission.
This is where mission management comes into play. The German Space Agency at DLR is responsible for the German experiments and contributions to the ISS. It handles the selection and coordination of these experiment. Planning for a mission typically begins long before the flight to the ISS; for Cosmic Kiss, preparations for the selection of experiments began in late 2019.
Some of the experiments are financed by Germany's National Space Programme, which is managed by the German Space Agency at DLR on behalf of the Federal Government. Another source of funding is ESA’s Science in the Space Environment (SciSpacE) programme, to which Germany contributes.
There are also a number of experiments that are carried out on the ISS over many years for research in which repetition and statistics are very important. These include the high-tech Electromagnetic Levitator (EML) melting furnace, the PK-4 plasma crystal experiment and research on granular materials. These will also be continued during Cosmic Kiss.
In order for the experiments to be carried out as effectively as possible, the astronauts must learn how to operate them before the mission begins; after all, the crew on the space station is intended to act as an extension of the scientists. These preparations make up a large part of their astronaut training, alongside the other training for operating and controlling the crew capsule, docking with the ISS, extravehicular activities (space walks), safety and survival training, operating the ISS, emergency medical care, return to Earth and landing. In total, mission training takes approximately 5000 hours. In the future, this part of the training could be reduced, as AI-supported assistance systems such as CIMON could help the astronauts to carry out the experiments on the ISS.
Ground control – round-the-clock support
Several control centres around the world are responsible for the operation of the space station and the safety of its crew. Overall responsibility for the station rests with the mission control centres of NASA in Houston and of Roscosmos in Moscow. If experiments are affected, the Payload Operations Center in Huntsville (USA) has overall responsibility for all western ISS test facilities. The other control centres that handle the payloads are in close contact with them.
ESA's Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC), located at the German Space Operations Center (GSOC) on DLR's site in Oberpfaffenhofen, is responsible for all experiments carried out in the European Columbus Laboratory on the ISS. At GSOC, DLR and ESA work closely together and are in constant contact with the other control centres around the world and the astronauts on the ISS. The planning and integration of new experiments begins here, long before the mission itself. The Col-CC is responsible for the management and control of the European space laboratory systems, the coordination of the operation of the European payloads on the ISS and the operation of the European ground communications network. It forms the interface between the Columbus experimental facilities on the ISS and the scientists in the European user control centres, including the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) at DLR in Cologne. The MUSC qualifies space experiments for certification of readiness for flight, supports their operation with the necessary infrastructure during the flight and makes the archived data accessible to users all over Europe after each successful mission. On behalf of ESA, it operates the Biolab, Expose, DOSIS, Materials Science Laboratory (MSL), Facility for Adsorption and Surface Tension (FASTER), European Drawer Rack (EDR) and Electromagnetic Levitator (EML) facilities on board the ISS.